The Funny Thing About Jews

Ezer Weizman, Israeli Air Force general, said, when asked about who should be a Jew: “Anyone crazy enough to want to be a Jew is a Jew.” 1.

I was born in Romania, Transylvania more specifically, where every day I was reminded that I am not safe from anti-Semites. I emigrated to the US at age 13 along with my parents, while other members of the family went to Israel. In America I felt comfortable and antisemitism was not and is not on my mind as much. Yes, it has crept up at times, never to go away, and is more intense now, but still, I feel safe here. I often wondered as a child why there is so much hatred towards my people, and why my family in Israel needs to go through all those wars against those who hate Jews and Israel, and what are we to do about it. I finally realized that it was our Jewish sense of humor that has given us our reprieve against persecution, and will probably keep us going as a people. For 1700 years we faced all kinds of anti-Semitic proclamations beginning with the ancient Greeks who did not like Judaism because its belief in one God, and this offended the many Gods of Greeks. Then came the Romans.

As far back as Titus (70BC) they made it a practice to confiscate Jewish property. Constantine, the Roman emperor in the early 4th Century AD, converted to Christianity and with that he introduced more anti-Jewish proclamations, confiscations of property and exile, you can call him the father of antisemitism. That is when we came to be labelled the Christ Killers. Then came Mohammad and the Arabs in the 7th Century, and Mohammad could not decide if he liked Jews or hated them, so sometimes we were Pigs and Monkeys in his eyes, and sometimes the good people of the book. But, were called monkeys far more often. There were pogroms in all the Christian lands, more property and wealth confiscations and more massacres of Jews. In Middle Eastern Muslim lands, more of the same. Winston Churchill, the hero of WW2 was an anti-Semite and wrote against Jews in 1920. FDR did not want any more Jews in the US during WW2, then there was Jimmy Carter and his brother Billy, and good old Louis Farrakhan. So, we Jews have had 1700 years to practice our humor.

Most of our humor until the early 20th Century was melancholic, our sages told us to endure and study Torah, to persevere. Well, we persevered right into the Holocaust. And we have had 1400 years of the same stuff from Arabs and other parts of the Muslim world. And we persevered some more all the way up to now. Today, we Jews have a country, we have established our place in the world, we are still facing anti-Semites every day, but thanks to advancements in communications we have learned how to fight back effectively. That we did most effectively through our humor. Jewish humor goes back to the Midrash, in the ancient Middle East, it was further developed in modern times as the humor of the Ashkenazi Jews. In the time of the Holy Roman Empire Jewish theological satire appeared clandestinely to oppose Christianity. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote “The Fools of Chelm and Their History” filled with old Jewish humorous self-mocking.

Sigmund Freud said that Jewish humor is mostly about “mocking the in-group, that being the Jews, rather than the “other.” Self-deprecating also contains dialectical element of self-praise. A joke can bribe the hearer with pleasure, and convince them to take sides with the teller.” Saul Bellow once remarked that “oppressed people tend to be witty.” It seems American Jews picked up on this early in the 20th century, and realized that to make fun can possibly overcome prejudice. So, not only did Jews produce great scholars, doctors, lawyers, business people, but most importantly we produced our comedians, far and away our best weapon and tool toward acceptance by the “other.” And it was the American Jewish comedian that we should thank for this. It started with Jews in Vaudeville and has not stopped since. Gentiles started to say “come let’s go watch the Jew be charming.” So, Jews made jokes just about everything, funny jokes, but endearing jokes. Grouch Marx really started it by making fun about Jews being excluded from many clubs “I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.” On being accused as a communist, he said “I am a Marxist of the Groucho tendency.” He made fun of those he argued with “These are my principles, if you don’t like them, I have others.” Who could argue with that? Then came many of the well-known Jewish sayings “What do you call a Jewish man who lost half his brain? A widower.” Or “How can you spot a convert to Judaism? Answer is easy. They’re the only normal ones in the congregation.” Or, “The rate of Jewish intermarriage is a serious problem. Scientists estimate that unless something is done to stop intermarriage, in 100 years the Jewish people will be reduced to a race of gorgeous blondes.” Or lamenting about antisemitism “Jesus to the left of me, Moses to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle of Jews.”

And we kept making good fun of the many accusations made against the Jews as a people. When accused that the Jews are controlling the banks, the media, the world, we were all excited to hear “such good news,” what with all our other problems. Let’s all of us rush to put these “great assets” on our financial statements next time we need a bank loan. And we had more good news about our power to dominate the world, as the new anti-Semites of the left, led by the “Left’s icon of our times” Ilhan Omar, declared that we have hypnotized the world, that Israel has hypnotized the world. Again, great news, we are also the best hypnotists. Naturally, we have been accused of being deceitful and disingenuous, so we had to come up with a joke for that “An anti-Semite walks into a bar and orders drinks. Then he sees, sitting near the bar, a Jew wearing a kippah talking to another patron, so he goes up to the bartender and tells him that he wants to order a drink for everyone in the bar except for that Jew there, he says it loud enough for everyone to hear, so the Jew turns to him and nods his head, then turns back and continues the conversation with the patron. This bothers the anti-Semite, so he tells the bartender that he wants to order another drink for everyone but not for the damned Jew. Again, the Jew turns to him and nods, then goes back to the conversation with the patron. Now the anti- Semite is getting angry and yells at the bartender, here I am buying drinks for everyone except that Jew there, how come he is not offended? The bartender replies” Oh, that is Mr. Bernstein, the owner.” Or the joke we have about prejudice. “A WW2 sergeant stationed at Fort Benning gets a call from a prejudiced woman “we would love it,” she said, “if you would bring to our house five soldiers for Thanksgiving dinner. But make sure they aren’t Jewish.” “Will do” replied the sergeant. So, five black soldiers show up as the woman is getting ready. “Oh my” the woman exclaimed. “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake. “No ma’am” said one of the soldiers. Sergeant Rosenbloom never makes mistakes.”

And there were more proverbs and jokes that endeared the Jewish comedian and as a result endeared the Jew. “Adam was the first lucky man, as he had no mother-in-law.” I even had my own about money when out for dinner with my father-in-law. He insisted on paying for the meal, and I insisted on paying instead, because “I do not want you to spend my inheritance, so I will pay”. Or “life is not as good with money as it is bad without it.” Or “If the rich could hire the poor to die for them, the poor would make a very good living.”

Yes, we got good with the self-deprecating because that made us less threatening to gentiles. But then we established our own country, and again more trouble for our people. I was in Israel in 1973 when my uncle Joszi, and I, got into a discussion about the war between the Arabs and the Jews and he stated that it will take another 100 years for there to be peace. That would make it the year 2073 before peace can be achieved. Israel is close to the heart of every Jew that I know, whether American or Israeli, and we are all concerned about the prospects for peace and as a consequence what will happen to us the Jewish people. We now have to face anti-Semites not only on the right, which we have had to deal with for almost 2 millennia, but the new emerging Left, and even our own Jewish anti-Semites and “wokes.”

The latest of the new accusations, “the Jewish space lasers.” This one is a joke on its own, and no comment is needed. We are now called “Nazis” because our people are fighting those who try to once again annihilate us. We have come to a crossroads. Israel is the pride and soul of the Jewish people, it is the “start-up nation” advanced in technology, science, medicine, agriculture, and yes, warfare. Israelis have their own culture developed over a short 75 years during which time there was never any peace and the nation had to be on guard at all times. It is a melting pot of peoples, Jews and Arabs who speak many different languages. In 1948 when Israel fought its first was against attacking Arab armies, Israeli commanders issued orders in over 110 languages. There were Jews from Poland, Estonia, Greece, North Africa and Russia. France, Great Britain, North America, South America, Belgium, Bulgaria, Morocco, Iraq, Romania, Hungary.

They had one thing in common, they were Jews who wanted to live in freedom in their own country. Other than that, they all had something to say about the other, not always very nice, as each group came from its own culture with its own prejudices. Yet Israel assimilated them all in a short time while facing dangerous enemies on all its borders and throughout the world. So, while we American Jews lived relatively comfortably and safe in the US, and had time to make fun of everything and develop our great comedians, who in turn, ingratiated us with the gentiles, Israelis have not had the time or the inclination to develop such a sophisticated sense of humor about everything, not yet. Einstein said, when asked what he thinks about Jews: “Jews are like any other people, when in power, they will act as any other people.” So, Jews can be normal, and can be human like anyone else.

And for this we are vilified, because we are not supposed to be like anyone else. John Oliver, the famous not funny comedian lamented how in the last Israel/Gaza war not enough Israelis, meaning Jews, were killed. Reminds us of the old joke “in a shtetl in Russia a young girl was murdered and the whole Jewish community was readying itself for the pogrom that was sure to happen, as it was the Jews who were always blamed, when the rabbi’s son comes running and declares with great excitement, “I have good news, the girl was Jewish”.

So, we are back to the prediction from my uncle Joszi that it will take 100 years for peace to be achieved in the Middle East. But I will add that it will not happen without the comedians. It will be up to the Jewish comedians of Israel to lead the way now, come up with the appropriate sayings and humor that will “disarm” the Arabs. Here is one about Meir Kahane, who was an Israeli ultra nationalist and hard liner who wanted to expel the Arabs from Israel, during an election year: “Two Arabs are staring at a giant billboard of Kahane, one says to the other” I am voting for Kahane” the other says in dismay “How can you vote for him?” The other replies “He is the only one who promised to take care of us.” So, make them laugh and realize that the Jews are not so bad after all, and there are still 52 years left to get this peace thing done.

It is time for Arabs to come “see the Jew be charming.” Israelis got a taste of this when at the end of the Yom Kippur war, as the Egyptian army stood in the Sinai and proclaiming its great victory, yet surrounded by the Israeli army, Israeli generals began praising the Egyptians for their gallantry, and jokes started flowing across the lines, and this greatly impressed the Egyptians as it played no small role in the peace negotiations that followed. All because they saw the Jews being charming.

Then there is the one about two Arabs are watching a Jewish archeologist dig up a Jewish tablet from the ruins of ancient Judea. One asks the other “what is that” the other replies it is a 2700 years old Judean tablet of the Jews. The other replies in amazement: “Wow, Is that how long the occupation has been?” So, there is plenty of material for the Israeli comedians to work with, lets get going, only 52 years left to get it done.

About the Author
Peter was born in Romania in 1948. His father was interned during WW2 by both Germans and then in Siberia by the Russians. Others in his family were sent to Auschwitz, those left emigrated to Israel in 1960's. He studied history in college and has traveled extensively. Peter lives in Minnesota with his family.